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Arlington, VA

Arlington County’s Off-Road Trails: A Multi-Functional Green Infrastructure Solution

At its core, green infrastructure is multi-use, multi-functional, and interconnected.  The off-road trail network in Arlington County, Virginia provides an example of the practical implementation of these principles in an urban setting.  Arlington County, which borders Washington, D.C., is densely urban.  As of 2010, an estimated 212,200 county residents were living in only about 26 square miles for an average of nearly 8224 people per square mile, typified by high-density mixed-use development.  In addition to its human population, the county supports a diverse population of wildlife as well (compiled in the excellent July 2011 “Wildlife of Arlington: A Natural Heritage Resource Inventory Technical Report”), many species of which are pressured by urbanization and non-native species.

Because Arlington is so densely populated and developed, it is useful for its built infrastructure to achieve multiple functions including societal and environmental objectives.  Arlington’s 36-mile network of maintained, multi-use, off-road trails provides corridors of green space that accommodate multiple forms of alternative transportation, recreation, plant and wildlife habitat, and migratory channels for wildlife free of motorized traffic.  Some of these uses may seem at-odds: the listed goals of Arlington County’s Master Transportation Plan: Bicycle Element include both “Provide high-quality transportation services” and “Advance environmental sustainability.”  The same report includes tree and wetland preservation in its design principles as well as landscaping “to separate shared-use trails from streets and create an attractive environment,” promoting wildlife habitat and natural aesthetics within an urban community.

In a metropolitan area known for traffic gridlock, Arlington’s trails present an attractive opportunity for people to commute and exercise in a variety of non-motorized methods.  According to BikeArlington.com, “Arlington’s multi-use trails are shared and enjoyed by bicyclists, pedestrians, runners, skaters, cross-country skiers, dog walkers, baby strollers, persons in wheelchairs and others.”  They interface with on-road bicycle routes and a variety of destinations throughout the county, passing through various natural public park areas (for example, the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail, which connects to Riverside Park and the Dyke Marsh Wildlife preserve, among other parks), and connect with trails in adjacent counties as well as shown in the following map (available as a PDF via the link):

Such connections provide migratory passages for wildlife in addition to transportation channels for humans.  According to the Friends of the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD), the W&OD rail trail is used by 2-3 million people per year, while simultaneously “function[ing] as an important greenway for wildlife [providing] food and shelter for birds and animals, both native and migrating.”  Other notable examples of Arlington’s named trails include the Four Mile Run Trail, which runs the length of the county, and the Custis Trail, which runs the width.  These trails can certainly be improved–for example, with regards to the removal of invasive species–however, in general they provide an excellent example of how urban environments such as Arlington County can utilize green infrastructure to sustain environmental resources and human needs.

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